Writing The First Pharaoh fulfilled a lifelong dream of mine. As a child, my father would take me at least once a year to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. For some reason I was fascinated by the Egyptian wing, although we’d also spend some time in other galleries.
5 out of 5 stars
Dazzling Historical Fiction. This is superb writing - not only skillful but passionate. Highly recommended. Grady Harp (Amazon HALL OF FAME TOP 50 REVIEWER)
Segue now a whole bunch of years into the future. I had earned a doctorate in ecology and landed a faculty position at the University of Delaware. Suddenly, I was asked to interview Anwar Sadat for a publication and to consult to the Egyptian government on ecological affairs. Off I went on the first of several trips to Egypt.
This historically based novel ably blends fact and fiction and considers the mutual love of a wise man and his protégé…
This tale of historical fiction seamlessly blends rich factual detail about ancient Egypt with a young man’s ascendancy to the throne amidst court intrigue.Kirkus Reviews
As luck would have it, Sadat was assassinated just ten days before my first visit. I went anyway, arrived at midnight and on my first morning awoke up to a bright sun rising over the Nile River, with the Pyramids of Giza in the distance. It was a humbling and emotional experience. I immediately thought of my father, who had died a few years before.
Over the next few weeks, as I toured the various historical sites, one thing began to nag at me. Yes, there were hundreds of books written about nearly every Pharaoh and period of dynastic history, but none seemed to answer the very question that was bugging me: How did this all start? Who were the people who had the vision to begin what became one of the most incredible civilizations on Earth, lasting more than 3,000 years?
That’s what led me to research and write The First Dynasty Series. And what I found still amazes me.
Throughout antiquity Egypt was a land of hundreds of tiny villages, with constantly warring tribes, loosely divided between Upper and Lower Egypt. Then, in the space of a few extraordinary decades, the impossible happened. An incredible man, King Narmer (perhaps also known as Menes), united Upper and Lower Egypt.
In The First Pharaoh I tell the story of King Narmer (Pharaoh was a term used later in Dynastic history) and his epic journey, seen through his eyes and those of his Chief Scribe and shaman, Anhotek. The First Pharaoh gives us an understanding of the culture Narmer lived in and shaped, the battles he fought to unite his people, the woman he loved and nearly lost, the enemies even in his own court who plotted against him, and his many successes and painful failures. Above all, we see how Narmer’s loving relationship with Anhotek defined his personal vision for his country and its people.
Written on a huge tapestry, The First Pharaoh allows us to share Narmer’s far-reaching visions for Egypt’s future that were so compelling and that ultimately proved so enduring. The First Pharaoh tells what I hope is the inspiring story of the mythic journey of the visionary hero, through obstacles and triumphs, wars and peace, love and hate, to launch one of the greatest civilizations ever to appear on earth.
Research ‘til You Drop
In my FAQ section I answer questions about the actual writing process. Like with most historical fiction, though, the writing is actually the culmination of what is usually years of research. And that’s the way to was with The First Pharaoh.
Frankly, my own library on ancient Egypt is far larger than most public libraries. I easily spent thousands of dollars on primary research materials. I read, and I read, and every source opened up new leads that had me reading still more. I took notes; hundreds of pages. I had more than a hundred questions that I needed to answer.
By then I had also amassed a group of experts that I wrote to for answers. More than a dozen archaeologists, Egyptologists, physicians and others were kind enough to respond to my inquiries with helpful information. I ended up visiting the site of Narmer’s village, known then as Nekhen and now called Hierakonpolis. Egyptologist Renee Friedman, was helpful in explaining life in the ancient town.
I also visited Dr. Gunther Dryer of the German Archaelogical Institute, meeting with him in both Cairo and Berlin. Dreyer was the Egyptologist who actually discovered King Narmer’s tomb and various wine and oil labels that proved the Battle for Unification to be a historical fact.
Most helpful of all was Dr. Toby Wilkinson of Christ’s College, Cambridge. Wilkinson is a noted Egyptologist who has written several wonderful books about the early dynastic period. I corresponded and met with Wilkinson at Christ’s College, as beautiful a setting as any academic institution can be.
All in all, the research component took about five years, albeit while I was involved in other life pursuits.
The Written Word
The writing itself took about 11 months, which averaged about two chapters every month.
Although I write from an outline, I frequently find myself immersed in a scene and observing my characters as they interact with each other. At those times, I’m simply writing what I see them doing, which is both strange and wonderfully exciting.
For me, writing is an intense process and I often find it hard to leave my characters in the computer. As an example, my wife and I were out to dinner as I wrote the Battle for Unification chapter. Emotionally, the scene was very exhausting to me, as I had put my protagonist, King Narmer, in extreme danger. As we ordered my wife commented that I seemed “far away.”
I told her that I had left Narmer in the middle of a battle. She called over the waiter and we left the restaurant immediately. That’s why I maintain that the most important thing for a writer is an understanding spouse.
I hope that you enjoy The First Pharaoh, The Dagger of Isis and Qa’a. As always, I look forward to your comments.
The First Pharaoh
What drew you to write about ancient Egypt?
As a child my father would take me to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and we would invariably visit their fabulous Egyptian collection. My father loved history… actually he was interested in most everything, but he was particularly fascinated by ancient Egypt. I think my love of ancient Egypt is an outgrowth of those special times with my father.
How did you come up with the idea for The First Pharaoh?
I’ve always been interested in ancient Egypt, but the question that has always intrigued me is: How did the whole thing start? Who had the vision to create what evolved to become arguably the most successful civilization the world has ever seen? So, my research eventually led me to Narmer and the story of his uniting Upper and Lower Egypt.
How do we know that Narmer really existed?
For much of the past two hundred years, Egyptologists thought that Narmer, also known as Menes, was mythical. He was so revered by succeeding Kings and priests, and so deified, many thought he was a mythical creation.
Then, in 1898, what is known as the Narmer Palette (see image) was found buried in the desert in what was known as Nekhen (later known as Hierakonpolis). The palette clearly tells the story of how a King of Upper Egypt defeated one from Lower Egypt. The cartouche, with the famed catfish and chisel, indicates his name was Narmer, although the letters actually only spell out “Nrmr.”
In recent years, Dr. Gunther Dryer of the German Archaeological Institute, has excavated Narmer’s tomb and has found wine jugs with tax stamps on them that refer definitively to Narmer’s War of Unification.
Why does the word “Pharaoh” never appear in the book?
The word Pharaoh as applied to the ruler of Egypt was not used until much later, around the 18th Dynasty, more than a thousand years after Narmer. The word Pharaoh means “Great House” and refers to the immense palaces built by the rulers by that time. However, nearly all Westerners know Ancient Egyptian rulers by the term Pharaoh, no matter what Dynasty they were from. In The First Pharaoh, as well as the sequels, The Dagger of Isis and Qa’a, I chose to use the correct term used at that time, King. For purposes of a book title that people would relate to, we decided on “Pharaoh”.
Can you tell us more about the Narmer Palette?
Finding the palette buried in the desert sands close to where Narmer ruled was a pivotal find in sorting out Egyptian Dynastic rule. Before the find most Egyptologists felt that Narmer was a mythical figure. Combined with Dr. Gunther Dryer’s find of Narmer’s tomb a half-century later, the palette proved Narmer’s existence.
While in Egypt I met Mark Warden, an Englishman and a stone carver who had done work for the Royal family. He was helping Egyptologists better understand how ancient carvers managed to carve pallets as elaborate as the Narmer Palette. I was immediately intrigued. As soon as I returned to the States, I contacted Mark who by then had moved to a nearby state. I immediately commissioned him to carve a copy of the Narmer Palette, which now graces my home library. Here you see Mark holding the work-in-progress.
The palette had a functional as well as a ceremonial use. Where the creatures of chaos intertwine, the resulting convex surface was used to grind cosmetics, which would have then been applied to King Narmer’s face. Note how the priest’s are controlling the forces of chaos.
The palette tells an amazing tale of the uniting of Upper and Lower Egypt, Narmer’s vanquishing of King W’ash, and his slaying of the enemy warriors. Note Narmer’s serekh at the top center of the palette, showing the catfish and chisel symbols.
If you are interested in seeing how Master Craftsman Mark Warden carves his intricate stonework, you can follow his creations on YouTube.
Where did you do your research?
Of course my research started with books, scholarly articles and countless Internet sources. I also was fortunate to make the acquaintance of Dr. Toby Wilkinson of Cambridge University, one of the pre-eminent historians of the early Dynastic period. He served as one of my mentors and I was able to spend time with him in Cambridge asking him every conceivable question about Egypt circa 3100 B.C.
I was also fortunate to be mentored by Dr. Gunther Dryer of the German Archaeological Institute, whose knowledge of Narmer and the First Dynasty runs deep. My visits with him in Cairo and Berlin proved invaluable.
A visit to the ancient city of Nekhen (Hierakonpolis) being excavated by Dr. Renee Friedman was extremely helpful.
Finally, I was able to stay with a Bedouin tribe in Egypt’s Eastern desert. My host, Sheikh Abdel Zaher Sulleiman, is the leader of these remarkable people who to this day manage to thrive under the most hostile conditions imaginable. I learned much about the desert environment from Abdel Zaher.
Elsewhere on this site you will find a bibliography of books I would recommend to those interested in learning more about the people, culture and leaders of the First Dynasty.
What about the major characters in the book? Did they really exist?
Perhaps. We cannot be sure about all of them. We now know with certainty that King Narmer lived and conquered Lower Egypt to unite Egypt into one country. Based on the structure of the court of succeeding rulers, of whom we know quite a bit more, it is likely that King Narmer had one or more trusted advisors, so the figure of Anhotek is likely. We know that Narmer married, but we know nothing else about the Queen. All the other characters are fictionalized.
From the descriptions in the book, Neith-Hotep’s (El-Or) heritage appears to be semitic. Are you suggesting that there were Jews living in that time period?
My research and my personal beliefs are that Judaism as a defined religion appeared much later in history and, in fact, is indebted to Egypt for many of its beliefs and traditions. From circumcision, death rituals, dietary restrictions, and many other practices, one can clearly see the influence of ancient Egyptian culture on Jewish practices. However, for this story I extrapolated that there may have been semitic nomads even in earliest times that believed in a single God, such as Yahveh.
I’d like to learn more about the First Dynasty period. Can you recommend some books and/or articles?
For those of you bitten by the bug that is ancient Egypt, I can assure you there is no cure. However, I recommend the following books as a starting point if you want to delve deeper into the topic.
Early Dynastic Egypt by Toby A. H. Wilkinson (Routledge, 1999).
Genesis of the Pharaohs by Toby Wilkinson (Thames & Hudson, 2003).
What Life Was Like On The Banks of the Nile by The Editors (Time-Life Books, undated).
Egypt Before the Pharaohs by Michael A. Hoffman (Barnes & Noble Books, 1993).
Chronicles of the Pharaohs by Peter A. Clayton (Thames & Hudson, 1994).
Bedouin Life in the Egyptian Wilderness by Joseph J. Hobbs (University of Texas Press, 1989).
Egyptian Women of the Old Kingdom by Henry George Fischer (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1989).
Egypt: The World of the Pharaohs, Edited by Regine Schulz and Matthias Seidel (Konemann Publishers, 2011)
I welcome your suggestions of other books to add to this list. Please write to me with the full citation. Please indicate if you wish me to use your name as the referring source.
If you have other questions concerning The First Pharaoh please write to me so that I may include them in the FAQ section.
The First Pharaoh
Readers’ Discussion Guide
The First Pharaoh is set in approximately 3,150 BC. By then Egypt was already an advanced civilization. What aspects of early ancient Egypt culture surprised you?
By 3,150 BC the Egyptian legal system already afforded women certain rights and privileges, such as the right to initiate divorce proceedings, inheritance rights and the right to own a business. Does this surprise you?
King Narmer was revered by every subsequent King and Pharaoh (a term that originated later) and worshipped as a deity in some instances. What about King Narmer’s personality and accomplishments made him so revered?
How would you characterize the relationship between King Narmer and Neith-Hotep? Which aspects did you enjoy most? Which aspects did you enjoy least?
The relationship between Meni and his father, King Scorpion, was a complex one. Do you feel that King Scorpion loved his son? Do you feel that Menes ways of coping with his father’s disapproval were appropriate?
Anhotek served as a father-figure for the young Meni. What aspects of their relationship were notable to you?
Could Egypt have achieved its future greatness without Unification?
Ancient Egyptian medicine was far advanced by 3,150 BC, but still primitive compared with modern medicine. What aspects of medical practices impressed you and what aspects negatively impressed you?
What impact did King Narmer’s epilepsy have upon his character?
Should Anhotek have done more to mediate the conflict between Menes and King Scorpion?
Compare and contrast Ihy’s strengths and weaknesses with Anhotek’s.
How did Mersyankh influence King Narmer’s eventual character?
How did the ancient Egyptians’ adherence to ma’at influence their development as a culture?
Was the push for Unification more attributable to King Narmer or Anhotek?
Some scholars have suggested that ancient Egypt was originally peopled by black tribes from northern Sudan. In any event, the interactions between Egypt and the cultures to its south were already advanced by 3,150 BC. How does that influence show up in Meruka’s character?
Egypt society was open to other cultures, albeit on a limited basis due to their geography. How did you respond to Anhotek’s and Meni’s interactions with the distinctly Semitic Me’ka’el and El-Or?
Some Egyptologists believe that ancient Egyptian civilization significantly influenced the formative years of Judaism. Are you aware of any customs, beliefs, ceremonies or practices that are similar in both ancient Egypt and in Judaism?
How did the description of the Battle for Unification affect you? Did the goriness of ancient hand-to-hand combat make an impression? Did the characters’ response to the realities of battle surprise you?
Did King Narmer do a good job preparing his son for leadership?
“Come, Anhotek. Our story is over. Our work here is done. Horus waits. Take my hand. Let us fly to him now… let us soar together.” King Narmer on his death bed says these words to his long-dead vizier, Anhotek. Was King Narmer’s work truly done? Was Anhotek’s?
The link between the King/Pharaoh and Horus is a strong and pervasive one throughout the novel and throughout Egyptian Dynastic rule. Like Native American beliefs, the falcon is a strong totem. How did it serve King Narmer throughout his life? Was it a benefit or a curse?